A Home for Ourshelves
Love is making room in your library for someone else's story.
My wife and I are moving in a couple of days, and I’ve taken on the arduous task of packing up our books.
I’ve lived in this little Philadelphia row house for six years, one year in the second floor apartment, the past five in the first floor unit, which I took over after the bassist of one of my favorite punk bands moved out… which is another story all together. Before that, I had a solid year and a half of moving from place to place, at one point getting rid of every single possession and crashing on a good friend’s couch, before finally settling down and signing a proper lease like an adult..
And it was here, in this apartment, that I started to build my library.
It was the first place that was mine. A place where I could hang up movie posters, blast my punk-pop music at full volume, and most importantly, buy and fill as many bookshelves as I wanted.
Fast forward several years. I’m married, still in this place. There are several bookcases from Ikea in our living room, lined with leather bound books and hardcover anthologies of comics. Our bookshelves built into the walls of the apartment are filled with a mixture of our reads, a blend of textbooks, non-fiction, classics, and popular novels. The little back office has several shelves full of Young Adult books, and we have baskets jam packed full of giveaway books, for whenever a friend comes over.
No one leaves our apartment without something new to read.
For the most part, a lot of the books haven’t moved in years. Favorites stay up in the shelves, high up, where they seldom get shifted about. Books that aren’t give-away-able or loan-able, no matter how much I might trust the person asking.
And as I sift through the collection, plucking down book after book, something strange happens. I’m swept up in the memories of the past few years, each tied to a particular book. And not just that, but what’s going to happen when we move, and together, unpack them all.
There’s a weathered, stained copy of Mr. Nice, a paperback I didn’t even want to buy, sold to me by a man who told me a story that broke my heart. How he’d traveled with that book to London from Australia, read the book on the flight, and sold it at a used bookshop. Upon returning to Australia, a few months later, he met a woman reading the book. The same book. That exact paperback. The serendipitous moment led to them falling in love, moving to Philadelphia, getting married…
And divorced. He was selling all his possessions at a yard sale to move back to Australia.
I can’t bring myself to get rid of the book, this story attached to this story. I tell that story every now and again, and think about that man often, and wonder if he’s doing okay. If he ever walks past a used bookstore, thinking of her. If he sometimes spots that book on shelves, and remembers.
There are my copies of the Borders Classics. I’ve got a bunch of them, the first books I started pulling together to build a library with. I spent so much time and money in the Borders in Philadelphia, a once glorious store near City Hall, since replaced by a massive Walgreens. I run my fingers over the earth-toned spines, flip the deckled pages and paper.
I think about some of the earliest dates with my wife, wandering through flea markets around the city we were falling in love in. How thrilled I was to spot some Borders Classics at one in Clark Park in West Philadelphia, excited to add them to my collection. The missing books, found three years ago. And here they are. Though the collection is still missing a few, she still humors me as I explore thrift stores and used bookshops, those particular books always high up on my list.
I find a copy of Dating Makes Me Want to Die, my wife’s once favorite dating advice book. When I signed my first book deal, for a dating book, she let me borrow it as part of my research, just a few months or so into us dating.
I never gave it back.
You could mark it up to me being forgetful, or the likely, subconscious want for her to not have to use it again. Into the box it goes, to remain in our library, a mark of a period in our lives that’s somewhat over. Even though we’re married, I like to think we’re still dating. I still want to impress her. Surprise her. Try to convince her to stay with me, and show her how special she is, again and again.
Dating doesn’t make me want to die. Sorry, book. It gives me, and our relationship, continued life.
There’s a beat up paperback of The Known World, which brings a particular smile to my face. Our first date. After hundreds of OkCupid messages, spanning nearly two months. We’d talked about everything in those, including books and what we were reading.
I gave her a copy of it on date number one.
The book moved with her from her old apartment in South Philadelphia, to an apartment in Point Breeze, and then to a place just a few blocks away from me. When we got engaged, the book found its way back onto my bookshelf, but with a little note written inside.
“Our First Date.”
It should be noted that The Known World is not a romantic, first-date book. At all. But we’d talked about it. I thought she’d enjoy the book.
There are the Kickstarter funded books, the limited edition books scored at Comic Con, the signed books that I really don’t want (looking at you, Modelland by Tyra Banks) but can’t bring myself to get rid of because they are signed. Trade paperbacks of comics, signed RPGs that I’ve never played and likely never will. These are all gingerly packed away, in tissue paper in large boxes.
And then there’s the massive bookshelf of leather bound books. Some look expensive, but in reality, were a couple bucks on eBay. Others, mixed in with the bunch, are rare, limited editions, purchased during times when I only had twenty dollars in my checking account, and was far more hungry for books than actual food. And last, the signed copies of books by authors that have sadly since left us, and neither of us will flip through. Bradbury. Crichton. Angelou.
For her birthday one year, I bought my wife a signed first edition of Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, leather bound and beautiful.
“So will I ever be able to read this?” She’d asked.
“No.” I’d said, lovingly, placing the book on the shelf. “No you won’t. Happy birthday.”
And now that book, along with hundreds, likely a thousand others, are placed in boxes and ready to be moved to a new place. The bookshelves they’ve sat on for three years short of a decade? Those hardy shelves, they are off to Craigslist, as the towering ancient Ikea monsters won’t match the new place. The books will sit in boxes for a few days, no doubt, but will be taken out.
Taken out together.
And that’s just it.
That’s what hits me about all of this.
Soon, we’ll start taking these books out, unpacking them, placing them on new shelves and figuring out a new order. We’ll buy new books to fill empty spaces. Together, we’ll save room for new releases out at the end of the month. I’ll try to remember what I’ve pre-ordered in all the moving madness, and will likely forget, and we’ll have to shift the books around all over again.
Maybe we’ll argue about some of it, me caring more about the books looking nice on the shelves than I do about alphabetical order. Or maybe I’ll want to keep my young adult books together, or sort out the non-fiction from the anthologies, the classics from the popular fiction.
Whatever the case, it’s the first time I’m building a library with someone else.
Once we move and unpack these books together, and purchase new shelves, it’s not my library anymore.
It’s our library.
We’ll have our stories, in all this. She’ll add books that have tales of their own attached to them, and we’ll find books together that we’ll make memories with. We’ll pick out bookshelves together, to hold these memories up high, where we can revisit them at any time.
Love is making room in your library for someone else's story.
I can’t wait.